US Army Major General Chris Donahue
US Army Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last US service member to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, on August 30, 2021 in a photograph taken using night vision optics. Image Credit: XVIII Airborne Corps/REUTERS

Hollywood shapes so much of the world’s perception of what ought to be and what is, of heroes and human ability, of military might and fight, it is hard to know where fact and fiction separate. We are used to seeing movies where satellite surveillance and superior firepower remove any threat with the squeeze of a trigger. But that’s the movies.

It’s far different on the ground, in darkness, vulnerable, where every soldier views life through night-vision optics that magnify ambient light into a green luminous world. And it is this image of distorted light that will forever now shape the moment US troops withdrew from Afghanistan, their mission over after almost two decades of waging peace in a country that has spat out so many invaders before. A mission over? Hardly mission accomplished. But a reality too of mission impossible perhaps.

The battle honours of the 82nd Airborne Division read better than any Hollywood script. They were first into North Africa to mark America’s entry into the European theatre in World War II. Sicily, Italy, the Anzio landings, parachuted and in gliders behind Utah Beach as D-Day dawned on Normandy. They were at the bridge too far in Arnhem, then the Battle of the Bulge and later crossed the Rhine into the heart of Hitler’s Reich.

The 82nd are the Pentagon’s “go-to” elite troops, trained and prepared to be anywhere around the world with boots on the ground within 18 hours of the orders reaching Fort Bragg. On their arm patch are the letters “AA” — standing for “All American” — the epitome of US military power projected globally.

But the image of Army Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue leaving Kabul Airport on Monday night projects an image globally too of an ignominious end to a gruelling, nearly two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Donahue, steely-eyed, in a helmet and fatigues and carrying a rifle, was photographed using night vision optics as he became the last American soldier to leave the country. His focus, whether he was aware of the significance of the moment or not, is likely the reason he was nicknamed “Flatliner” early in his military career. Keeping calm. In control. Coolness. Flatlining emotions.

“I definitely think there’s time where you have to flatline,” Donahue said in an Airborne podcast in May. “Every time you do something, act like you’ve done it before. In other words, don’t get too high, don’t get too low,”

But the reality is that after $2,3 trillion spent, 2,461 US military lives lost, some 160,000 Afghan fatalities, the Taliban are now back in control in Afghanistan. It feels a lot like Saigon. But the next time Washington needs boots on the ground, the Pentagon will look to North Carolina and place a call first to Fort Bragg, the 82nd’s 3,500 always combat-ready troops and the two-star major general who took command there last year.

“Without a doubt, the paratroopers of this division are absolutely a national treasure,” Donahue said in that podcast. “It is an incredible honour to be in this division,” he said. “For the rest of my life, when people say ‘What’d you do with your life?’ I’m going to be able to say, ‘I was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division’.”

History will say he was the last man standing in Afghanistan. The last man out.

Two weeks ago, he celebrated his 52nd birthday and was eight years old when he first felt inspired to join the military after he saw a newspaper front page showing the US invasion of Grenada. “That moment forward led me to always want to do this kind of thing,” he said in the podcast.

After his graduation from West Point in 1992, Donahue served as a second lieutenant in the infantry branch. According to Military.com, Donahue has commanded at every echelon from company to brigade — and attended Harvard University as a US Army War College Fellow.

On 9/11 — the day of infamy that brought the US and others to Kandahar, Kabul and Kunduz — he was at the Pentagon when the third aircraft struck, a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers.

He has at least 17 deployments under his belt including four in Afghanistan, plus Iraq, Syria and Eastern Europe, Panama and South Korea, Africa, Haiti, Hurricane Katrina. You get the impression if he told you all, he’d have to kill you — and has the ability to.

The public domain information on Donohue’s personal life is non-existent, which isn’t surprising and, if this were a Hollywood movie, a protagonist searching a computer for personal files would come across a message reading “Access Denied” and would realise that the plot was twisting.

How would Hollywood have scripted the US withdrawal? Is Bruce Willis still doing action movies? Is Ben Affleck available?

Donahue is cut like a figure from central casting.

It’s unclear if Donahue knew he would be the last US soldier out of Afghanistan, or if it was planned that way. The script would likely have the square-jawed lead huddling with his men in a sandbagged bunker staring at a map as radios squawk and gunfire cackles in the distance.

“Gentlemen,” he would say, “we are in a world of pain. But let’s put some hurt on the bad guys. And remember, we leave no man behind.”

Remember, the reality is far different. There are many left behind, too many hurt — and too many dead.

“In this division,” he said in May, “leaders jump first, eat last. Always.”

Always in war there are winners and losers. Somehow, in Afghanistan, few have won. And how so many have lost. Always.